A week or so ago, in paraphrasing Prof. Trevor Ling, I wrote that the Four Noble Truths were not offered as religious beliefs, but rather as the Buddha’s analysis of the human situation. But that doesn’t mean that they are theories either. Technically, they are satya (“Arya-satya-pariksa”), a Sanskrit word defined in the Soothill Buddhist dictionary as “true, genuine, a proved or accepted truth.”
So here “truth” means something that conforms with the judging of a fact. When what is judged to be is, then the judging is true. They are facts. You could just as easily call them the Four Noble Facts. The Buddha looked around and saw a whole lot of suffering going on. It was true then, as it is now. Suffering is.
Now, the Buddha was not interested in merely proclaiming philosophical truths. He was also concerned with offering a method to solve human problems, a prescription to cure the dis-ease of dukkha (suffering). This is why, when the Buddha taught the Four Noble Facts, it is described as the first turning of the Wheel of Dharma. It unites the Buddha’s analysis, his statements of fact, with action. And that is really what the Eightfold Path of the Four Noble Facts is all about, the laying out of actions that can taken to reduce suffering.
We might say that the Buddha had a “scientific” approach because he arrived at this judging of fact through a process of investigation and critical analysis. Starting with the premise that the world is permeated by suffering, the Buddha wanted to find out if it was possible to transcend suffering. He did this by tracing the origins of suffering. The Four Noble Facts has its procedure: The first stage is to recognize that suffering has a cause. The second stage is to determine where suffering comes from, where the principle source of suffering lies. The third stage is to investigate whether or not it is possible to end or transcend suffering, while the fourth stage is to search for the way, or path, by which one can obtain liberation from suffering.
I believe the Buddha also wanted to free people’s minds from the prejudices of dogmatic tenets, so I don’t feel it is necessary to get hung up on having just one specific cause for dukkha, because even suffering does not exist from its own side. So it doesn’t matter if tanha (thirst, craving) is the primary cause or something else, or if there is just one cause or many. Once we have identified the fact that suffering has causes, we can then proceed to change the conditions by dealing with the vehicle for suffering, which in most cases is our very own mind.
Dogen-zenji said, “Teaching which does not sound as if it is forcing something on you is not true teaching.” The teaching itself is true, and in itself does not force anything upon us, but because of our human tendency we receive the teaching as if something was being forced on us. But whether we feel good or bad about it, this truth exists. If nothing exists, this truth does not exist. Buddhism exists because of each particular existence.
Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind